It was Chris Blackwell’s idea to get Toots Hibbert to record “Tumbling Dice”. He must have had in mind the way Otis Redding had made such a success of turning “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into a soul stomper. And, as people always said, if Toots resembled anyone in the way he delivered a song, it was Otis.
This was September 1972, and Blackwell was in Jamaica to work on a few projects, including the sessions for the Wailers’ forthcoming album for his Island label. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston were at Harry J’s studio, on Roosevelt Avenue in Half Way Tree, recording a song called “Slave Driver”, which included the lines: “Slave driver, the tables have turned / Catch a fire, and you will get burned.” A couple of miles across Kingston, just off Spanish Town Road in a featureless area near the docks, lay Dynamic Sounds, where the studio had been booked for an afternoon session with the Maytals, whose Blackwell-produced album Funky Kingston, released in the UK six months earlier, had already stirred interest outside the established market for West Indian music.
Dynamic Sounds was also where, at the start of the year, Paul Simon had recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” with a local rhythm section including the lead guitarist Hux Brown, the bass guitarist Jackie Jackson and the drummer Winston Grennan, drawing the rock world’s attention to reggae. Those three musicians were reassembled for this Maytals session, augmented by Radcliffe Bryan on rhythm guitar, Winston Riley on organ and Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson on piano. As they arrived, I noted Jackie Jackson’s choice of conveyance: a brand new Vauxhall Viva GT covered with tiger-skin vinyl.
Together they were variously known as Gladdy’s All Stars, the Harry J All Stars, Beverley’s All Stars, the Aggrovators and, eventually, the Upsetters. They were a crack band, and on a hot afternoon in Kingston, sitting in a circle, the drums separated only by low sound-baffles, they locked into a groove without a moment’s hesitation. The only problem was that no one — not Toots or his fellow Maytals, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, not Blackwell, not even me — knew the words to “Tumbling Dice”, and in those days there was no Google where someone had deciphered Mick Jagger’s faux-southern drawl and decided that he was singing “Honey, got no money / I’m all at sixes and sevens and nines / Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider / You can be my partner in crime.”
Toots’s solution was to ignore that little difficulty and simply steam ahead, making up words — mostly nonsense syllables — as he went along. If Otis could make sense of “fa-fa-fa-fa” and “got-ta-got-ta”, so could he. And that’s more or less what he’d done with Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, one of the singles taken from Funky Kingston. A few takes of “Tumbling Dice” were committed to tape, but as far as I can discover nothing ever saw the light of day.
For me, it was just a treat to see those musicians — the equivalent of the house bands at Stax in Memphis or Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans — in their own environment. Particularly Hux Brown, whose stuttering single-note commentary was such a distinctive feature of so many records, including “Mother and Child Reunion”, and Gladdy Anderson, a legend of Jamaican music.
And, of course, Toots, whose death at the age of 77 was announced last week. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear him recording one of his great original compositions, like “Six and Seven Books of Moses” or “54-46 Was My Number”, but at least I got a chance to spend a few hours watching a force of nature at work.
* The photograph of Toots and his fellow Maytals is from one of the reissues of Funky Kingston. Maybe someone can tell me who took it.